Irish Christmas Traditions


‘Nollaig Shona Duit’ (NO-lihg HO-nuh ghwich)!

Or, a very Merry Christmas to you from Ireland!

Ireland has a wide number of Christmas traditions steeped in the Gaelic and Catholic heritage of the country. As we get ready for the upcoming holidays, we wanted to share with you some traditional and thoroughly modern Irish Christmas customs.

Some of the older Christmas traditions in Ireland include:

The Candle in the Window

A tradition that was very widespread in the 1970’s but which seems to be dying out somewhat and especially in urban areas is the ‘Candle in the Window.’ Symbolically, the candle represented a welcome to Joseph and Mary as they wandered in search of lodgings. The candle indicated to strangers and especially to the poor that there is food and a welcome place at the table within.


Before it was known as a romantic place under which to sneak a kiss, the ancient Celts believed that mistletoe possessed magnificent healing powers. At one point it was banned as a symbol of paganism. Now it’s hung in doorways to symbolize peace and goodwill.

The Wexford Christmas Carol

One of Ireland’s oldest Christmas carols, ‘The Wexford Carol,’ is believed to have originated in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, hence its name. It dates back to the 12th century and tells the tale of the Nativity. It’s also known by its opening line “Good people, all this Christmas time,” and has been sung by the likes of Tom Jones, Julie Andrews, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Wren Boy Procession

The Wren Boy Procession has been revived in recent years with parades held on St. Stephens Day, December 26th, in the town of Dingle and other locations. A procession takes place where a pole with a holly bush is carried from house to house and families dress up in old clothes and with blackened faces.

The history of the Wren predates Christmas, with origins in Irish mythology. Wrens held great prominence, as they were believed to be a link between this world and the next.

There are several legends regarding the ‘wren boys’. One such tale tells of a plot in a village against some British soldiers during Penal times. The soldiers were surrounded and were about to be ambushed when a group of wrens pecked on their drums raising the alarm. The plot failed and thus the wren became known as ‘The Devil’s Bird.’

The wren is also blamed for betraying St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. This is probably why the wren was once hunted and then nailed to a pole at the head of the procession. While this part of the tradition has died out, you can still hear people singing this poem on the 26th of December:

The wren the wren the kings of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day it was caught in the furze
Up with the kettle and down with the pan
Give me a penny to bury the wren.

It is possible that the very Irish tradition of visiting houses of friends and relatives on St. Stephens Day traces its origin to these events.

Little Christmas/Women’s Christmas

The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) is also celebrated in some towns in Ireland as ‘Nollaig na mBean’ or Women’s Christmas. Traditionally the women get the day off and the men do the housework and cooking! Also known as ‘Little Christmas,’ all Christmas decorations are usually taken down and put away on this day, as it is considered very bad luck to remove the decorations and Christmas tree beforehand.

More Modern Traditions

As times have changed, a whole new variety of modern holiday traditions has emerged in Ireland, including:

St. Stephens Day, while still regarded as a day to visit family and friends, is now also a great day of sporting with horseracing, football matches, and a myriad of other sports taking prominence.
Taking the entire week off between Christmas Day and New Years Day, with many businesses completely closing down during this time.

A Christmas Day ‘polar swim’ is popular in certain parts of Ireland with perhaps the most famous being at the ‘Forty Foot’ tiny beach in South Dublin. Around the country you can spot hundreds of brave souls taking to the sea in the spirit of Christmas, with participants taking the chilly plunge, often for charity. (Now, if that doesn’t get you in the mood for an Irish Coffee… nothing will!)

Still looking for a great idea for Christmas and/or New Year’s? Think of their eyes as they open their gift from you… a trip to Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales… or any combination of these! Give us a call at 310-791-6101.

Wishing you a very Merry Holiday Season and Peaceful 2019!

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